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The “Y” in Youth Ministry

By Christian Harvey

Whenever I consult with a church around youth ministry my first question is always “Why do you want to do it?” The answers vary in their wording, but usually they are some variation of “If we don’t want our church to die we need to bring in youth, they are the future of the church.” I understand why this is on the minds of so many churches, but I think this answer reveals many of the misguided ways in which we approach youth ministry.

1. Most youth workers will point out to you that youth aren’t the church of the future, they are the church of today, we are not training them for being full members later, but the church needs their gifts and passions now. Many have written on this so I won’t say much more.

2. It reveals our true motivation, which is selfish. We don’t want to serve youth primarily because there is some need that we believe the Gospel can meet, some way in which the church can serve, advocate for or love these young people. Rather, we want to “do” youth ministry to serve us, so we can grow, so we can maintain, or so we can survive. Rev. Eugene Rivers says it well

“In too many contexts what masquerades as ministry is really maintenance of the institutional status quo. The goal is to reduce the hemorrhaging of members from the church. It’s not really about ministry.”

We are called to serve, not because of what it will do for us, but because we love people, even if they never sit in our pews, join the servers guild or sign up for Pre-Authorized Giving. Youth ministry exists to serve youth, not to grow the church. If the church grows as a result, great, if not, well that brings me to my next point.

3. The answer assumes that the church’s primary goal is to survive. The Anglican Church as we know it is dying, it is obvious, we see it all around us, and it terrifies us. This makes us desperate and we struggle to find ways in which we can stop the death, reverse it. We grasp for any rope that will help us, youth ministry, fresh expressions, painting our door red, to try and turn things around. We are obsessed with survival, but the reality is, we are the only institution who should be free from this.

Our institution is built on the story of Jesus, one that comes to its culmination in him giving his life up on the cross for the sake of all of us, no matter how unworthy. We are called to follow Jesus in this, to take up our cross and follow him. This does not just mean the individuals in our churches, but the very institution itself. We do not exist to survive, but to give our institutional life for the sake of those in our community, no matter how unworthy. The cross is our story, we know that to follow Jesus is to embrace suffering and death. But this is not the end, we can do this with the knowledge that the body of Christ will not die for good, that the victory of God is the resurrection.

We don’t have to worry about keeping the church alive, we just have to be faithful to story knowing that in giving up our lives for others, resurrection will come. So youth ministry is not about saving the church, if we are getting into youth ministry it is to serve youth to the point of institutional death trusting that God will resurrect the body in some new way, which is beyond anything we can imagine.

How will youth ministry look if we rid ourselves of these weights that we attach to it. How would it look if we assumed youth are the church of today, and we freed ourselves of the pressure to make sure we survive and just embraced youth because they need to be embraced, without worrying about what they can do for us? What do you think?

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5 Responses to The “Y” in Youth Ministry

  1. Thank you for this article. I hope that many church leaders will read it and take to heart what you are saying. I have 3 adult sons who were raised going to Church and Sunday School. Today, they do not see anything in the church for them. It was always about making them fit the existing model. We continue to live a Christian life, but they are not enthused with organized religion.

  2. Embracing this image of youth ministry will do wonders for our churches as well as for our young people. Imagine parishes feeling truly free from the burden of needing to maintain buildings for the sake of young people, knowing that the Church they love will be secure even if some of its physical manifestations shift and change.

  3. Well put Christian. Like Christ, we are called to serve, not to survive, all the while having faith that through loving service, our Church, the body of Christ, will be reborn in new and incredible ways.

    That said, death is often a painful process, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross being the ultimate example. So how do we as young leaders in the Church help some of our older members journey through “institutional death” as you put it –confident in resurrection– in a manner befitting Christ’s compassion?

  4. Well said Christian. I have to admit that I have been guilty of using the dying church as motivation for church leaders to reach out to youth. I often tell them that if the youth are not part of the church of today, there will be no church of tomorrow. It needs to be the love of Christ that compels us. Thanks

  5. I find this article inspirational- however I do have one qualm about it; the idea that the Anglican church is dying. I admit that seems to be the common belief these days, and I admit that it certainly could be doing better but in my opinion it is a bit like a tree, with some dead branches scattered throughout but alive overall. I used to be a youth, now I am a student/youth leader, and I intend to continue on the path I’m on to become one of the many inspirational adults that are in my diocese (Huron) that I looked up to as a youth and still do today. I have many friends that are youth, and many that like me are youth leaders and in all likelihood will continue to be. I am proud of my diocese and the steps it has taken towards being a better church.

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